A passive West seals town's fate

Bosnian Serbs gave warning
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THREE WEEKS ago, Lieutenant-Colonel Milutinovic, chief spokesman for the Bosnian Serb army, sat across from me in his headquarters in the town of Han Pijesak, and over a cup of Turkish coffee boasted that the end of Srebrenica was imminent. "Unprofor has failed its job," he said of the United Nations Protection Force, pausing to draw on his cigarette. "The Muslims were to have been disarmed by Unprofor but, as you know, they still have their weapons, which they use for terrorist attacks.

"Since January, 50 Serbs have been killed in terrorist actions. We can no longer tolerate Unprofor's failure and inaction. We will go in and do the job for them. We will demilitarise Srebrenica."

In retrospect, Col Milutinovic was not bluffing. He knew something and was trying to get me to pass this on to "the world". In this way, Col Milutinovic felt that he had prepared the world for what was to come. In his mind, the Serb case had been made, it was irrefutable, and logic clearly dicated only one possible course of action.

The Serbs have long wanted the three eastern enclaves - Srebrenica, Gorazde and Zepa - to form an uninterrupted swath of Serb-held territory bordering on Serbia itself, but until now they had never dared to move against them, either out of fear of world opinion or Nato air strikes, or because the timing was not right. What apparently changed their minds was the Muslim offensive around Sarajevo last month. The ability of the Muslims to muster more than 15,000 men in the Bosnian capital while co- ordinating large-scale attacks across the country sent a shiver of dread down the collective Bosnian Serb spine.

The Serbs do not want a long-drawn-out war, because they know time is against them. Arms and money now flow steadily to Muslim and Croat forces, while sanctions sap the Bosnian Serb economy and morale. The Serbs needed to hit back, to punish the Muslims for their "insolence" and at the same time show the world they are ready for a resolution to the war, by force if necessary. They chose to strike at the most vulnerable and most symbolic targets in their sights: the eastern enclaves.

When seen in this light, the decision to attack Srebrenica and Zepa was one of desperation. But it was also a stroke of brutal brilliance which bears the hallmarks of the Bosnian Serb commander, General Ratko Mladic. Throughout the war General Mladic has proven himself a ruthless master at setting the rhythm of the conflict, keeping his opponents off balance and creating situations to which no adequate response is possible.

By taking Srebrenica and moving against Zepa, General Mladic has dealt such a crippling blow to the UN's tattered credibility that a withdrawal by the peace-keepers is now highly likely. A UN pull-out would mainly benefit the Serbs and could speed a resolution to the war. Overrunning Srebrenica also serves General Mladic's more immediate needs. The Bosnian Serb army is overstretched along difficult front lines and outnumbered by the Bosnian government army almost two to one. By taking the enclave, General Mladic has freed up thousands of men who can now be used elsewhere.

Once the decision was taken, all that was needed was an excuse to act. Finding one was not difficult. Throughout the month of June, only five of the 32 planned aid convoys due to visit the three eastern enclaves were given permission to enter. The food situation had become desperate, particularly in Srebrenica. On Monday 26 June the Muslims took matters into their own hands. As they have done often when food stocks have run low, they slipped past the Dutch peace-keepers to raid Visnjica, a nearby Serb village, for livestock. During the raid, they torched six Serb houses, killed a soldier and injured an old woman. The Serbs had found the excuse they had been looking for.

A small group of foreign journalists was whisked to the village, where soldiers banged on about the UN's inability to police Srebrenica. General Mladic wrote to the UN, turning the Muslim raid and one dead soldier into a "large-scale military operation" in which the Muslims had "burned down the Serb villages of Visnjica and Banja Lucica,murdering the population".

Despite the clear signals of Serb intent, the international community did nothing. It was only last Sunday, four days after the offensive started, that the UN command began threatening intervention. And it was not until Tuesday, much too late to be useful, that Nato aircraft were called in. On that day, as the Serb tanks rolled into town, Hajrudin Avidic, the mayor of Srebrenica, described to Radio Sarajevo what it was like: "The town is being pounded with everything you care to name ... Unprofor has withdrawn ... At the moment tanks are moving in, and if the international community does not intervene, the people in this town will suffer a catastrophe ..."